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Rarely has a modern English player made such a smooth transition into Test cricket as Steve Rhodes. What made his instant acclimatisation even more striking was that he had been on the fringe of the side for the best part of a decade, and was close to his 30th birthday, before he won the recognition he deserved.
Rhodes finished his first England summer with 26 catches, two stumpings and a batting average of 55.50. He also emerged with a heartfelt tribute from his captain, Mike Atherton, who named the Worcestershire wicket-keeper as his player of the year. Rhodes had been installed almost immediately as a respected senior pro, and well before the season had run its course had become one of Atherton's most trusted advisers. His approach is one of total involvement; he knows no other way to play.
English county standards have often been maligned in recent years, but here was a player who promoted the advantages of a lengthy county upbringing. Rhodes's spirit had been unquenchable through the long years without Test recognition and the knowledge he had gleaned had become widely admired. When his chance came, he pursued it with the energy and enthusiasm of a terrier tearing at a slipper.
Throughout the summer, whatever situation England may have found themselves in, Rhodes exuded energy, chivvying and chattering, bombarding his team-mates with a stream of leg-pulls, worldly-wise comments and tactical insights. Critics who once wondered about the minutiae of his style were instead massively impressed by his substance. One had to think long and hard in September to recall a chance he might have missed. Arguably, no wicket-keeper in the world at the present time gives his captain, or his bowlers, more.
With his jutting chin, defiant expression and professional outlook, Rhodes was an integral part of what appeared in the summer to be a tougher, more positive England - the most visible proof of the change of emphasis introduced by the new chairman of selectors, Ray Illingworth. He had been raised in the West Riding only a few miles from Illingworth's home in Pudsey. Their spiritual home, in both cases, was the Bradford League. Rhodes was exactly the type of player which the Bradford League presents as its essence, an indefatigable competitor who gives or asks no quarter.
His debut Test innings - 49 against New Zealand at Trent Bridge - identified him as a worthy Test No. 7, but it was the manner in which he staved off defeat at Lord's, batting for more than two hours for 24 not out, that caused Illingworth to sing his praises. "There was a brave little Yorkie out there," Illingworth trumpeted. There was an uncompromising one, too. To salvage a draw, Rhodes had not been averse to a little obvious time-wasting. Such professionalism was greeted with sporadic distaste, but it brought no criticism from New Zealand's captain, Ken Rutherford, who judged it gamesmanship within acceptable limits. Though his form was to wobble in the winter, by the time the South Africans had departed, Rhodes possessed an air of permanence.
STEVEN JOHN RHODES was born in Bradford, Yorkshire, on June 17, 1964 and was a pupil of Carlton-Bolling School in Bradford. His father, Billy, kept wicket for Nottinghamshire in the early 1960s, but it was quite by chance that his son's own interest was fired. Rooting around an old cupboard one day when he was ten, he discovered a pair of Billy's old stumping gloves and so loved the feel of them that it was not long before tennis balls were thumping against the wall of the family's paper shop.
Rhodes quickly made an impression in Yorkshire's age-group sides, joined Saltaire in the Bradford League and, at 15, he was offered his first Worcestershire contract. His immediate ambitions rested with his native Yorkshire but, although he made his first-class debut for them against the Sri Lankans at Abbeydale Park in 1981, his progress was blocked by David Bairstow, a red-blooded and popular 'keeper who was in no mood to retire graciously. Rhodes's predictable departure from Yorkshire in the autumn of 1984 caused much dismay throughout the county, not least for the coach, Doug Padgett. The manner of his leaving was quite exceptional: Yorkshire's general committee, then at its most divided, voted narrowly to ask Bairstow if he would retain the captaincy, but relinquish the gloves to Rhodes. Bairstow immediately and volcanically refused, leaving the committee to retreat from the lava flow.
Worcestershire has proved a more than satisfying home. Rhodes has played a full and enthusiastic part in their two Championships and four one-day trophies since 1987, and graduated to the vice-captaincy in 1993. The advent of four-day cricket has been the making of his batting, allowing him the opportunity to develop from being a regular maker of spritely thirties and forties to a batsman with seven first-class centuries to his name. His maiden England representative hundred, for the A team against Border in East London in 1993-94, was a landmark which afforded him special pleasure and one he had yearned for the evening before the game.
Rhodes was lavishly praised during his first England tour, for the B squad in Sri Lanka in 1985-86. He was selected for the 1988-89 tour of India, which was then abandoned for political reasons, and, although he made his one-day debut against Australia the following year, he was discarded for Jack Russell when the Tests began. Four more A tours followed, to Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, the West Indies and South Africa, all of them approached with enthusiastic professionalism. England's call was a long time coming. Let him enjoy the acclaim.